On Auburn Avenue I heard the call of a dove and saw yellow roses blooming in the memorial garden of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Just across Peachtree Street I met the Stewart family, three black Americans from the city’s western suburbs. Mia Stewart had watched the video of a police officer pressing a knee on the neck of George Floyd. She’d heard Floyd call out to his deceased mother. She thought all four officers should have been arrested immediately, and if they had been, she thought the riots might have been prevented. But the Stewarts were not here to protest. They carried brooms to clean up the wreckage.
“We can’t continue this,” Steven Stewart said, gesturing toward the park where someone set fire to the visitor center on Friday night. “Because the message just gets lost.”
Down Broad Street, in front of the ransacked Smoothie King, a diverse crowd of a dozen people picked up broken glass. The shards clanked together, making a musical sound. A circular saw whined, cutting plywood to fit the empty window frames. Around the corner at the edge of the park, perhaps 30 people surrounded a preacher who called for the power of God.
“A movement of justice and a movement of righteousness,” he said. The others raised their hands and began to sing.
Five days had passed since the killing, four days since the officers were fired, three days since the looting began, two days since the police station burned, one day since the unrest reached my hometown, and I was still trying to classify the people in the streets. Many clearly believed that this was a matter of life and death — that they could save lives by getting their message across.
There were peaceful protesters, of course, and local residents in each city furious about unjust treatment at the hands of law enforcement. There were others, too: agents of chaos seizing an opportunity to push a nation toward anarchy, or discredit the protests, or just see how it felt to throw an explosive at the police.
But here on the corner was Eva Harris, who said she’d lived in Atlanta for six years, and her rage was personal, because she had three sons and three grandsons and she feared for their lives.
“I’m not going to be on the news asking for peace,” she said as a crowd gathered around her. “Now it’s time to burn this s— down.”
“When we was kneeling, they didn’t hear us.”
“They hear us now.”
I walked back down Auburn Avenue, sweating behind my mask, returning to the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park. His words about justice and nonviolence were everywhere: inscribed on the ground, written on the wall, even beneath the rolling waters of the reflecting pool. Near the eternal flame, three women and four children sat in the shade. They were visiting family here in Atlanta. They’d arrived on Friday from Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota, just outside the Twin Cities.
Janice Taylor and Cheryl Kendle told me they knew many people on the south side of Minneapolis, in and around the neighborhood where George Floyd was killed, and now those people couldn’t buy diapers or milk or get a bus ride because of the burning and the looting.
“It’s just unfair to those who ain’t did nothing,” Kendle said. “Like us.”
For some Americans, injustice followed injustice. Even as Floyd struggled for his last breath, the pandemic was striking racial minorities at a disproportionately high rate. And some of those people had to live in neighborhoods that were ravaged by others in this week’s unrest. In the pool behind me, water rolled down over King’s famous words:
WE WILL NOT BE SATISFIED
UNTIL JUSTICE ROLLS DOWN LIKE WATER
LIKE A MIGHTY STREAM
As I write this, dusk is approaching. The pandemic is still raging. Tonight in America they will gather again. Some will wear masks; some will not. Some will have good intentions; some will not. All these people will press in together, shadowed by an invisible killer that has already taken more than 100,000 Americans. The people will call for justice. The virus will not hear.
This column has been updated to include Mayor Carter’s retraction of his statement that all those arrested in St. Paul had been from out of state.